Featured image courtesy IndiaTimes
The local government election of 10 February 2018 marked a triumphant return of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Though the polls were meant to elect representatives for local government bodies (the lowest tier of government), the sweeping victory of the brand new party he endorsed and gave his direct blessings to – the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – has revived the possibility of Mr. Rajapaksa’s return to political leadership in the country, if not de jure at least de facto. Three years after losing power, Mr. Rajapaksa may still have reasons to believe that he is not just the most popular politician in the country at present, but probably the most popular politician in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history. For a majority of the Sinhala-Buddhist population which loves him, things are returning to the post-war ‘normalcy’ that their eyes were getting accustomed to, soon after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009.
The resounding victory of the SLPP appears to have shattered one of the greatest post-war political myths in the country: ‘Yahapalanaya’ (good-governance). At the time it was promoted in 2014/2015, ‘Yahapalanaya’ was a necessary myth which had a devastating impact on the then Rajapaksa-regime. Symbolizing all that was good and beautiful (as opposed to the bad and ugly), it was a term, a slogan, which enabled the anti-Rajapaksa forces to provide a clear and soothing alternative to the authoritarian mess that was the Rajapaksa-regime. With a common-candidate (Maithripala Sirisena) who seemed to reach the very heart of the Sinhala constituency and appeal widely as a friend of the minorities too, a good and benevolent government appeared to be a possibility to many. With the Rajapaksas defeated, so the argument and expectation went, a new country based on the (seemingly) pristine values of democracy, good governance and the rule of law was to be constructed: one which would swiftly eradicate corruption, re-establish democratic and independent institutions, protect the rights of citizens, and even bring about reconciliation between the majority Sinhala community and the Tamil minority.
The Yahapalana-regime quickly turned out to be an embarrassment, one which may have generated the greatest degree of frustration within the shortest period of time in recent Sri Lankan history. For one, it was incomprehensible how a different era and culture of politics and governance was possible with the same set of politicians who had hopeless records concerning the promotion of ‘good’ governance. Looking around, there weren’t many faces which could have commanded confidence; not in the camp of the United National Party (UNP), and not in the camp of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), members of which suddenly joined the new regime having lambasted and ridiculed Mr. Sirisena, during the Presidential and Parliamentary election-campaigns in 2015. And a regime which was elected on the promise of eradicating corruption was not only finding it unable (and even unwilling) to prosecute those alleged of serious corruption, but also found itself to be struck by one of the most devastating scandals: the infamous ‘Bond-scam’, which implicated numerous individuals, ranging from the Governor of the Central Bank to powerful ministers, including the Prime Minister.
There was also, from the very start, an unresolved question about the mandate received by the Yahapalana-regime (both in January and August, 2015). For the apologists of the Yahapalana-regime, the mandate seemed to be a clear and convincing one in favour of prosecuting the Rajapaksas (for alleged corruption), introducing an entirely new Constitution which, inter alia, abolished the Executive Presidency, promoted maximum devolution of powers to the Provinces (especially the North and East), and facilitated transitional justice (perhaps through the establishment of a special court to prosecute members of the armed forces, or even through a hybrid court which involved the participation of foreign judges). For the apologists of the defeated Rajapaksa-regime, there was no such mandate whatsoever. Both these views masked a more nuanced reality which many were unwilling to acknowledge.
From the Tamil people in the North, the mandate was always clear. It was for all that the Yahapalana-regime had promised and more. But the message that emanated from the Sinhalese, especially from those who voted for the Yahapalana-regime, was less clear. The Sinhalese, by and large, demanded only a modest reform-project. On the one hand, this project largely involved the need to address the problem of corruption; and even then, it had to be remembered that a popular view in the country was (and is) that while corruption needs to be significantly minimized, it is also an inevitable phenomenon – and if economic progress and development is secured, a certain degree of corruption wouldn’t matter too much. It’s a view that reflects a certain degree of reality, but also one which shows how badly rotten Sri Lankan politics is; a situation from which the country would not escape anytime in the near future. A view that has now solidified in the country is: that while certain actors of the Rajapaksa-regime were indeed corrupt, their work still produced results, seen and felt by the masses; whereas the current regime, while being equally corrupt, is utterly inefficient.
On the other hand, in constitutional-terms, the reform project that a majority of the Sinhalese aimed at was perhaps something akin to the 19th Amendment: i.e. the re-establishment of independent institutions and a reformation of the Executive Presidency. This was what was achieved by the new regime, in the form of the 19th Amendment; but importantly, with the help of the 2/3rds Rajapaksa-majority in Parliament. Nothing more has been possible since mid-2015, with the current constitutional reform process now in a state of comatose.
All this would sound terribly unfair to the Tamil population which may have expected some serious progress. However, it seems that it is this very regime (barring a handful of Sinhala politicians) which doubts its own ability to introduce far-reaching reform, while the two main parties in power have differences regarding key constitutional issues. Shouldering the weight of history which proves that radical reform is difficult with the Sinhala population, the regime got trapped in a game whereby they promised one thing to the international community and the Tamil population, and another to the Sinhala electorate. A regime which was less cocky, more honest, and willing to assess its chances realistically, realizing that serious reform needs to be convincingly championed and promoted from the President downwards, may have operated differently and perhaps achieved somewhat different results.
In a sense, nothing of the above should be too alarming. After all, one of the foundational reasons for much of what has happened to the present regime has to do with the indubitable fear that the regime has of a possible return of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Yahapalana-regime, from its inception, has been a reactive regime. Unable to set the agenda and play the game on its own terms, the regime is possessed by the Rajapaksa spectre. As a result, the only thing the present regime has been able to do is to accuse the former regime of grievous misdeeds, and nothing else; a situation utterly despicable to the voting population. In addition, there is supreme incoherence at the hierarchy, with a President who at times shows that he is as clueless as an ordinary citizen in the street about what his own Cabinet is doing. Calling itself a ‘unity’ government, the regime – comprised mainly of the UNP and a few SLFP-backers of the President – is anything but united.
A fresh crisis of governance has emerged soon after the election, whereby there is uncertainty about the longevity of the present Yahapalaya-regime, with both the UNP and SLFP trying to form a government. It is a crisis precipitated due to the reaction of the President (as Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda has correctly pointed out), and also due to the pressure that seems to have been exerted on the President by a group of SLFP-Ministers in Cabinet. But, there are more serious reasons undergirding this crisis. Firstly, it is because the Yahapalana-regime (i.e. both the UNP and the SLFP) – apart from the SLPP – viewed this election as something more than a local government poll. Thus, the shock of defeat is palpable. Secondly, the crisis is a result of the deep and abiding lack of confidence the regime had, and has, about itself. Ever since the Rajapaksa team was able to show that they had massive numbers behind them at rallies (beginning with the famous Nugegoda-rally, with the momentum reaching a climax at the famous May-day rally at Galle-Face), the regime would have felt it was engaged in a difficult, even losing, battle. And the Yahapalana-regime, going by its performance since 2015, has every right to think so too. Thirdly, and related to the above, is the feeling harboured by the regime that the Sinhala-Buddhists are not entirely with them. And fourthly, the present crisis is also a result of the many glaring contradictions and antagonisms within the Yahapalana-regime; brought to the fore more clearly in recent times, especially during the election campaign. President Sirisena, in particular, took the lead in attacking the UNP, while Prime Minister Wickremasinghe was far more diplomatic in his approach towards preserving the coalition government.
In the above context, the current crisis was inevitable. However, this does not necessarily or automatically mean that there ought to be a change of government soon after a local government election. President Sirisena, in particular, has no right to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister (who is from the UNP); especially after being responsible, together with the likes of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, for the near demolition of his own party, the SLFP. If the President had wanted to, he could have been more measured in his critique of the UNP, knowing that his party and the regime in general would be faring poorly at the election; an approach which would have been less problematic to him, in case he wanted to continue with the Yahapalana-regime after 10 February. But that’s not where things are right now.
The reasonable way forward would be to invite a party which can muster a majority to rule. This is what’s effectively envisaged under Article 48(2) of Chapter VIII of the Constitution (introduced by the 19th Amendment). In short, in a situation where the Prime Minister does not resign on his own volition, the Prime Minister can be changed if the Cabinet stands dissolved, and that in turn can happen only if Parliament, inter alia, passes a vote of no-confidence – for which a clear majority is required. Another lesson that emerges from this constitutional-crisis is that the 19th Amendment was a constitutional ‘deal’ aimed largely at consolidating the Yahapalana-regime’s power; but it should be reiterated that this wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the then Rajapaksa-majority in Parliament.
Whatever the ultimate result may turn out to be, it is also interesting to note that the present crisis also tests the strategic thinking of the Joint Opposition/SLPP. Consumed by the greed for snatching power, the SLPP stands to lose much if it rushes to quickly where angels would fear to tread. Its aims, going forward, would be to help the SLFP establish a government without joining it. But as Dr. Charitha Herath (from the SLPP-camp) has pointed out, it would be necessary for the SLPP to ensure that this newly established government is of a very short duration and that during the course of that government, the greater likelihood is that the opposition would be led by the UNP, and not the SLPP.
How these different challenges would be addressed by the respective parties will be seen in the days to come. What is certain, however, is that from now on, things will never be the same again for the Yahapalana-regime. Thus, any form of reconciliation between the President and the Prime Minister is only going to be perceived as a more hilarious façade, which would drive the people further away from the SLFP and the UNP.
Different people can draw different lessons from the results of the election concluded on 10 February. One of the more serious lessons that some might be unwilling to acknowledge is how patient a vast segment of the Sinhala electorate has been, over the past few years, in observing the ferocious campaign launched against the Rajapaksas and how willing and ready they have been to forgive and re-endorse Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his team – especially after having realized that the Yahapalana-project is just talk and no action. Had this not been the case, the new SLPP (a movement which was quite effectively organized by Mr. Basil Rajapaksa, who is one of the most vilified members of the Rajapaksa-family) wouldn’t have emerged victorious. Just as the people were ready to defeat Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015, they are now ready to signal to the present regime that all’s not lost for the Rajapaksas either. It is a serious message that the present regime is unwilling to fathom.
Furthermore, and more damagingly, Sri Lanka has now reached a stage when ‘violence’ has the potential of becoming an ugly reality (especially in the South). Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, in a recent intervention, suggests that the President has the monopoly over violence, clearly implying that the President may need to use force if the current crisis continues and the UNP doesn’t allow the President to form a different government. This is never advisable, and it may not even be a real possibility with President Sirisena. But, the overall result of the election appears to suggest that the point has been crossed when any action against the Rajapaksas – especially, against the former President and the former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa – will be accepted by their supporters with mere non-violent protest. From now on, it is almost impossible to challenge the Rajapaksas without risking a serious and even violent confrontation; as any action against them, however legitimate, would be seen as amounting to baseless revenge and nothing else. The clash, if it ever happens, would also have the strong blessings of the Sangha-community, which has generally been very supportive of Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa.
All this also means, in the final analysis, that a critical and significant segment of the Sinhala population has hopes of correcting a ‘mistake’ they made in 2015. Instead of a puerile and vacillating leadership, they are almost yearning for a return to a strong hand at the helm: firm, decisive and unflinching. Instead of a hybrid-something that makes no sense, the demand would increasingly be for a leadership that can add meaning to their lives. For a population that has always wanted a strong and charismatic figure to lead it from its pitiful ‘developing nation’ state to something better, the promise of development and prosperity at the expense of greater rights and freedoms would be an attractive option.
Having reached the summit in search of a grand promise, the people have suddenly realized that there is nothing there. Instead what they find is a confused regime, unable to understand the gruesome reality that it has been comprehensively defeated at a local government election which was almost a national referendum of sorts. Continuing to hang on a stale hope of ushering in good-governance after three unsuccessful years with an unpopular leadership, the Yahapalana-regime can now be seen to be marching swiftly towards its inevitable death. If the same regime continues to rule it may not take too long to find – at the gates – a group, confident and vengeful, waiting to accept a corpse and attend to the customary practice of burying the dead. The end could still be a little less painful, if only those in power can think.